On an early May morning, the strengthening spring sun seeks to break through a lingering haze that envelops thousands of peonies on moss-green hillsides. Black ants race up and down a stem whose orangish bud is nearly blooming. At the garden’s edge, a young rabbit looks on in trepidation.
Meanwhile, just north of the Delaware line along Cossart Road at Route 100, dozens wait outside the gate for the opportunity to roam among blooms spread out like a skyful of fireworks fallen to earth.
In 1920, a young botanist named J. Franklin Styer began growing peonies and more for the cut-flower market. His family was one of several in the Kennett Square area to cultivate blooms and, later, mushrooms. Located along Route 1 just east of the Route 202 intersection, Styer’s Nursery grew, becoming a local go-to for gardeners. In 2002, it was purchased by Urban Outfitters, which transformed Styer’s into the upscale Terrain garden center and cafe.
But the family name has carried on under Styer’s Peonies. Each year from late spring into early August, Styer’s fields in Chadds Ford, Maryland and New York’s Finger Lakes region supply cut flowers to florists around the country—many bound for June wedding ceremonies. Visiting the fields has become a burgeoning rite of spring for flower lovers in the Brandywine region and elsewhere. The Chadds Ford location has more than 55,000 individual peonies in more than 200 different varieties and countless hues. Some folks gaze at and photograph the peonies without even getting out of their automobiles. Others linger to buy flowers, learn more about their cultivation and attend a growing list of events.
The florist-in-chief at Styer’s is Richard Currie, who came to Texas from Zimbabwe to be in the oil industry. He later returned to Africa to farm flowers, which were flown to markets in America and Europe. Currie decided to come back to the United States, and he eventually began working for Styer’s in the 1990s. He bought Styer’s Peonies in 2010.
The Chadds Ford location has more than 55,000 individual peonies in more than 200 different varieties and countless hues.
A few years ago, Currie hired Bruce Mowday Jr. to handle marketing and public relations for the business. Mowday has experience as a local events planner and a designer for Dansko, the West Grove footwear company. His father, Bruce Sr., is a well-known author of books that celebrate Chester County. “Styer’s has had peonies on this property now for 15 to 20 years,” says Mowday of the stretch of fields and woods that were once part of the old Hill Girt Farm. “The blooming period lasts from mid-May to early June. Some people come more than once each season because the show of colors is always changing.”
Peonies earmarked to be shipped later are cut before the hard bud opens, then put in cold storage prior to shipment. When florists receive the flowers, they’re told to cut the end of the stem at a 45-degree angle and put the flowers in water. About two hours later, they completely open up.
May 18-28, the Styer’s Festival of the Peony is expected to draw hundreds of paying visitors, who are free to drive or walk through the property. It’s open daily during blooming period from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.—rain or shine. “Even if there’s a storm, we stay open,” Mowday says. “If we close the gates, the cars back up on Route 100, waiting to get in.”
During the pandemic, the festival was crowded with stay-in-the-car visitors. “We were the only public event in the region that was allowed to go on,” Mowday notes.
Most visitors arrive in a buying mood. “We sell about 40% straight out of the fields, while the other 60% is sold locally or stored and shipped to florists,” says Mowday.
Peonies earmarked to be shipped later are cut before the hard bud opens, then put in cold storage prior to shipment. When florists receive the flowers, they’re told to cut the end of the stem at a 45-degree angle and put the flowers in water. About two hours later, they completely open up. “Our field at Geneva in the Finger Lakes has about 60,000 plants,” Mowday says. “They usually begin blooming around Memorial Day and continue through mid-June.”
A new field in southern Maryland will eventually expand the Styer’s season back to early May when it comes online.
The Styer’s Festival of the Peony is expected to draw hundreds of paying visitors, who are free to drive or walk through the property. It’s open daily during blooming period—rain or shine. “Even if there’s a storm, we stay open,” Mowday says. “If we close the gates, the cars back up on Route 100, waiting to get in.”
Despite the fact that they typically bloom less than two weeks, peonies are quite popular with gardeners. Their foliage is lush and green—and because of their height, they’re good for borders and the back of layered plantings. Then there are the blossoms, with their randomly layered petals in an array of colors. Any early-summer garden party would be lost without a vase of peonies on the table.
Peonies also grow well in the Brandywine Valley’s temperate climate. Once owned by the Pyle family, Hill Girt Farm was purchased by H.G. Haskell over a century ago and added onto as adjacent properties became available. Most of the farm’s modern life was as a dairy, but that was closed in 1972. “We plan to expand the festival for 2023 and add several new things,” Mowday says. “We’re going to have tailgate nights, where people can reserve a space for two hours.”
Also look for food trucks on weekends. “We hope to have one or two theme dinners,” says Mowday, “perhaps one where everyone dresses in the color coral, which happens to be the most popular color for peonies.”
For Mowday, the peony fields of Hill Girt Farm will always be more than just a place to work for a few weeks a year. “Last spring, my husband of 13 years and I got married on the farm,” he says. “It was a nice ceremony, but not elaborate.”
One with lots of peonies, no doubt.